Opening Up the Oscars: ‘Mank’ Unpacks the Politics Behind the Making of ‘Citizen Kane’


Oscars statuettes. (Courtesy Flickr)

By Frank Gardner, Assistant Arts Editor


With 10 Academy Award nominations, “Mank” is hardly an unsung favorite this Oscar season. There is, however, something very subtle about the way director David Fincher tells this story, balancing between witty dialogue and the sentiments of a depression-era, pre-war United States. The film follows Hollywood writer and satirist Herman Mankiewicz in the years leading up to and during his writing of one of Hollywood’s greatest movies, “Citizen Kane.”

The story goes back and forth between the 1930s as the Great Depression wreaks havoc on the movie industry and the world at large, and 1940, the year Mankiewicz writes “Citizen Kane.” “Mank” was shot in black and white. This, in combination with the old-timey charm of the original score written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of rock band Nine Inch Nails, grounds the movie in its history and takes the audience back in time.

The Story Behind ‘Citizen Kane’

White text illuminates a black background at the onset of the film: “In 1940, at the tender age of 24, Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures with a contract befitting his formidable storytelling talents. He was given absolute creative autonomy, would suffer no oversight, and could make any movie, about any subject, with any collaborator he wished…”

Somber music then sets the scene and we see Mankiewicz (affectionately called “Mank”) settling into a cabin as he recovers from a broken leg. It is here in this cabin that Mank (Gary Oldman) dictates “Citizen Kane” to his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). During this time, he confronts his alcoholism, expresses frustration with politics, and struggles to meet the deadline award-winning actor, director and producer Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has imposed on him.

In the meantime, the film goes back 10 years to 1930, when Mank meets Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who he befriends as the two share similar political beliefs and ideas about the film industry. Davies is romantically involved with newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank later bases his main character in “Citizen Kane” on Hearst, which causes major backlash.

In 1934, Mank and his brother Joseph begin working for MGM studios. Studio executives start producing propaganda films in efforts to thwart California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair’s election. Mank supports Sinclair and is in vocal opposition of the capitalist ideals the studio holds. In 1937, the tension explodes between him and Hearst, Davies and Louis Mayer (Arliss Howard) — one of the MGM studio executives — when Mank crashes a party and drunkenly, loudly proposes his idea for “Citizen Kane.”

After toiling over the script under a strict deadline, Mank eventually finishes the script, calling it his greatest work yet. Mank fights Welles for credit in his role in writing the film as their contract agrees Welles will take full credit despite his lack of contribution, but the two ultimately share the credit and receive an Academy Award together two years later.

Oscar Nominations

“Mank” touches on the heaviness of the Great Depression and the looming threat of a war with Nazi Germany as well as personal themes like Mank’s marital struggles and substance abuse. The film is pointedly vintage, and convincingly so, but even more impressively manages to retain something relevant and familiar to audiences today. 

“Citizen Kane” received nine Oscar nominations in its time and its biographical counterpart “Mank” has topped it with 10. Oldman steals the show, playing Mank, but doesn’t distract from the remarkable cinematography, sets or score of the movie. It’s an incredible film, but even with anti-capitalist intimations, it doesn’t end up being particularly revolutionary. The film makes many important critiques but centers around a completely white cast. This is arguably reflective of Hollywood’s demographic at the time, but not so reflective of the movie’s themes. The Oscars will be hosted later this month on April 25. “Mank” is streaming now on Netflix.